Mildly on: Amble Links. June 9th, 2019

I’ve only just found out that sea at the same temperature as fresh water will often feel warmer because it’s denser. Just one of many examples of watery physics magic that make me go “Ooh” whilst never really being likely to understand it. Before going in here, I’d been in the sea once this year, on May 20th at Tynemouth Longsands. A group of kids running in and out in t shirts and shorts gave me confidence that there weren’t hidden riptides. I’d stayed in half an hour feeling like my insides were a warm element that could possibly heat the whole sea if only it wouldn’t freeze me first. I’d like to swim in the sea more but it is much more unpredictable than most lakes and rivers, and certainly outdoor swimming pools. It also seems to involve people consulting tide tables, wind forecasts, the accumulated ancestral knowledge of fishermen and doing stuff with the moon. None of which are in my area of expertise.

This Sunday I’d been asked to run a writing workshop in Amble in Northumberland. I’d met Paula and Frances of Drywater Arts when they came to my show about Northern women. I talk about Ethel “Sunny” Lowry from Cheshire, the first British woman to swim the British channel (Her cousin’s an artist. You might have heard of him. Something to do with matchsticks). There was a shout and it turns out Frances Anderson was the second woman in one of my show audiences to have swum the channel too. I don’t think I consciously thought “Yes, I’ll take up their offer to run a writing workshop on a June Sunday because then I’ll get to swim in the sea with Frances and she’ll help confirm some of my developing ideas about mild swimming and also possess all this knowledge about tides, winds and moons”, but I wouldn’t put it past my unconscious. At the end, I asked her where was best to swim. She consulted a tidal app on her phone and started talking me through how there’d be no water at Boulmer because it was low tide, but Low Hauxley would probably be good and directing me. Then she suggested she just get her swim kit and come with me. It would be her first time in the sea this year.

We got to Low Hauxley, a lovely strip of beach just outside Amble, overlooking Coquet Island and its lighthouse but Frances said that tide as too low, we’d be swimming in rocks. All I’d seen was that we’d have to walk quite far to the sea- which is why local knowledge is invaluable. We drove to the next beach down, Amble Links and got into our gear (I already had my swimsuit on underneath my dress while Frances looked to have perfected impressive and complex towel-covered manoeuvres). After the wetsuit of Ullswater I was relieved to be keeping it minimal with just a cossie, neoprene socks (my feet get coldest) and earplugs. No swimming cap. I wasn’t intending to do front crawl and get ice cream head. We walked in together and I was pleasantly surprised at how okay the water felt on my skin. Much less icy than Ullswater even though it was probably technically colder. Frances’ approach to immersing herself was to start splashing the water in front of her vigorously, creating her own sort of sea tunnel to step into. Mine seems a bit more introverted. If I think it’s going to be really cold I sort of hug myself really tightly, then let go and sink into the water. Both ways, we were soon fully in and swimming under wisps of white candy floss cloud in a blue sky and a darker sea. One dark green-blue tent village after another popping up then collapsing in front of us every second.

Lakes don’t suddenly start wobbling in front of you like a jelly someone’s put a spoon in. I followed Frances as she moved into an economical front crawl South down the coast, happily prepared to follow at a slow breast stroke distance but she slowed down too and we drew level and chatted, the sea sometimes nearly tipping me nearly into her path as if we were on a giant wobble board. She talked about a fisherman being surprised when she said she sometimes knew there was something other going on with the sea. Not fully predictable by tide or current, but something telling you it was dangerous. He was surprised she knew that language too. I could imagine it was something you’d read in your body, as well as by triangulating what you could see around you in the water and the air. I don’t know how to read it yet, but I know it’s there.

She said the Channel Swim was the closest to death she’s ever been. She’s still not processed it all yet, though it was in 2008, but she has done some art about it and bits of writing which she hasn’t yet collated. (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/the-northerner/gallery/2014/jun/06/immersion-a-swimmer-at-one-with-the-sea-in-pictures) I know that doesn’t sound like mild swimming. It sounds like a dark night of the soul, in the old fashioned sense.

But the way she talked about preparing for the swim, about getting to know herself and her body and her limits and respecting the sea’s limits and the boat pilot’s knowledge, sounded more like what I’m reaching for than the packaged wild swimming thing. It sounded careful and committed. Not about being furthest or fastest or best but an insistent, gentle calling, prepared for over many years. Those who rush into it without knowing themselves or the crossing are much less likely to make it.

By now we had crossed and recrossed a section of the beach a few times. Frances pointed out how the sea was sweeping us on a bit of a diagonal. I was less attuned to my surroundings than when I swim on my own. Absorbed in the conversation but sneaking glances behind us to the white lighthouse, up to the white clouds standing out from the blue sky like a 3D image, the yellow dunes on the shore, the undulating glassiness of the water. If I stretched my toes down I could still feel a soft, sandy bottom. My hands were beginning to get a bit colder but I was still comfortable, though it felt right when Frances suggested we get out. Swimming through then standing up in the waves as they broke on to the shore, up with a bit of a stagger like when you’re getting off a rollercoaster ride and the gondolas are still swaying behind you. Again, looking at the time of the picture I’d taken before getting in was the only way to tell we must have been in forty minutes. Frances said that boded well if I was wanting to swim through further into the winter as I’d told her I did. I knew that the cold water shock response gets less and less the more you go in, but she said I’d still be able to get used to lower and lower temperatures than I am now. She said people laugh at her for feeling the draught, needing a cardigan, but she agreed with me that the cold of water is a different thing, often doesn’t feel like cold at all.

I don’t usually talk and swim but it had felt good to talk about swimming while doing it. To talk about the language of the sea. I’d read the writing group several sea poems including American feminist poet Adrienne Rich’s classic “Diving into the Wreck”. Dunno if she’d be a mild swimmer, but I felt like she knew something I’m beginning to know about the sea and the strength of gentleness:

the sea is another story

the sea is not a question of power

I have to learn alone

to turn my body without force

in the deep element.

A Mild Birth: Ullswater 7th June 2019

Okay, at Ullswater, there were majestic grey-green hills with their outlines scribbled in the sky and clouds coming off them like smoke. There was just me swimming as silver drops of rain made rings on the lake’s surface and you couldn’t tell whether the rain was coming down from the sky or up from the lake. There was just me, and not even a boat in all the seven and a half miles length of the third biggest lake in England as the sky grumped greyly over trees and shrubs arranged in a Masterchef dish called Textures of Green. Actually there was the steamer, a dot in the distance, chuffing along as I chuffed along with a head up breast stroke taking it all in. But I wouldn’t say this was Wild Swimming.

Or maybe it was, but I want to make a case for Mild Swimming. Which might be a thing or might be bollocks, but lots of my best ideas start with a pun which turns out to be a useful word-shift to another way of looking at things.

I was supposed to be swimming two miles in Windermere with a few hundred other people. We’d have stood in a pack doing a warm up to pumping pop music, then I’d have hung back to make sure I set off at the tail end of the crowd because apparently the swimmers practicing for triathlons swim over people to make sure they get a fast time. Then I’d have gone round some inflated buoys following the course, looking up and around me sometimes, but mainly doing front crawl, twice round in the lap. Then out, compulsory photograph while staggering up the jetty (Buy prints!), a goodie bag (Buy sports bars!) and into a marquee with lots of other people battling neoprene and nylon. I would have done it though. I did the mile last year and got the invaluable tip whilst I was newly battling with front crawl (“Your breath out should be gentle, like a sigh”), bumped into the poet Clare Shaw in the changing tent and blew golden bubbles up through clear water (It was a much warmer day and lake). But on the way this year, my car got a flat tyre. I limped off the road and fortuitously straight into a garage who were able to fit my temporary tyre immediately. It seemed as if I was still meant to be thrashing round Windermere

The reason this had begun to feel less enticing, apart from the weather warning which meant wetsuits were now compulsory and I feel about my wetsuit as I used to about wearing a school tie (“It’s all choking round my neck, do I HAVE to wear it Mum?”), was that the day before I’d been swimming in the River Cam, just down from Grantchester Meadows. Sun on my shoulders, catkins and leaves strewn on top of the water like laurels, stretching my arms out while a breeze blew trees green and silver. I’d posted a photo on Instagram and mentioned my other swims that week, in Helmsley and Jesus Green Lidos.

“Are you a bit of a wild swimmer?” someone had asked, and my instinct was to say “No, I’m a mild swimmer”. Partly because I like a pun. Partly because I don’t much like the phrase “Wild swimming”. It’s become sold as something a bit dangerous when actually it’s rather safe. In a number of senses. It also requires authentically authentic accoutrements to be performed. Like swimming in a whirlpool on top of a mountain which only three people have ever visited. Which instantly makes me want to buy Angel Delight and sip e-numbers by the gallon. So perversely, I’m drawn to something too tame to be wild swimming (A lovely outdoor pool without a whirlpool in sight) but also something that slips the boundaries of this newly commodified thing and goes back to being what swimmers like Roger Deakin intended when they started writing about swimming outdoors. He saw it as a subversion of how we were being shunted away into chemical-filled concrete holes in the ground indoors, instead of rivers, lakes and seas which were increasingly being bought up, sold off and packaged with “Keep Out, Dangerous” signs on them. He also saw it as anti-capitalist. But now swim-lit is a thing, and finding your true wild self is an aspirational thing you can buy in a holiday for a thousand quid, while wearing your expensive trekking gear.

But part of me is also “Ooh, the meadows where Rupert Brooke swam and Virginia Woolf, get me a scone with honey on it now and Roger Deakin was waterlogged and then Joe Minihane wrote about the positive effect on his wellbeing, I’ll have some of that”- so me doing wild swimming IS me mild swimming. However, I also think mild swimming might be a signpost for me of something else. About kindness to myself. About trying to resist the “Buy Everything/Be Everything/Be Your Super Well, Productive Best Life” thing whilst also, to be honest, finding out what my super well, productive best life actually might be. The one that fits ME- not the aspirational one I’m sold though. Also, the one that fits not just the individual me on my own, but somehow connects me to this complicated web of nature/society/world I’m in. (Whilst often being about being away from loads of other humans).

So I thought my flat tyre might have been a sign to save me from the Great North Swim and discover what mild swimming meant for me. But I still arrived at the car park at 2.40pm (My wave was at 3pm, I had pictured the exact sequence of frantic undressing and kit-gathering moves I would need to make it to the waters edge in time). However I was then told by a John West t-shirted steward that it was pre-booked car parking (“Oh sorry, I must have forgotten we had to pre-book last year”, “You wouldn’t have. It’s a new company running it this year, it’s all changed. You can park ten minutes away though”). I took this as the final sign. Drove to Kendal where I’d passed a tyre garage on my way, so I could get a proper tyre fitted and not have to worry about getting home with the temporary tyre you’re only supposed to go at fifty miles an hour. Only to find the mechanic who’d fixed the temporary wheel (at least ten miles away) was there as well picking something up. “You’re supposed to be swimming” he said. “Is there only one mechanic in Cumbria?” I said. As he was clearly the trickster guardian of my swimming I asked him where I should go instead. He said Haweswater even though you’re not allowed to swim there- or Ullswater. I felt like I should follow some rules, even though I’d eschewed the instructions, rules, injunctions and conditions that came with the Great North Swim, and headed for Ullswater.

By then, it was chucking it down. I stalled, was going to go to a cafe in Glenridding but a man was closing it up. Said I’d be alright to swim anywhere as long as I avoided the steamer. Normally the motorboats “would be lethal” but none were out. No one was out. He told me to wear a tow float though (inflatable orange bag thing so you can be spotted and also have somewhere to put your car keys etc). I thought of laughing at our dog when he won’t swim in the rain. Parked up by a beach bit. Went down and felt the water. Decided a wetsuit would be my friend for once, and struggled into it in the driver’s seat of my car. Feeling like I was heading into the unknown but determined. Determined not to have wasted a trip and to find out what mild swimming meant. What swimming my own way means.

I edged in. Went back to the shore for my gloves as the ice hit my hands. Edged in again. Felt warm. Relieved to fall forward into breast stroke. Then swam not too far off the coastline. Gently. I had my Goggles, hadn’t put my cap on. Thought mild swimming meant not doing front crawl if you didn’t want to. Dipped my head under, saw dark green. I didn’t worry about fish or weeds. Felt safe. Cars on the grey ribbon of road with their headlights on. Me at one remove from the water in my neoprene, a bit like being an avatar in a computer game. Looking around. Smoky mountains, an island with trees on, dustbin lid sky and perfect concentric circles skimming the whole lake surface. A yellow leaf floats past, a white and grey feather, no insects. I think of swimming the whole lake (seven and a half miles). How would I know when I was halfway to enough? I still don’t know, which is why I often want to swim further, longer, so I can find out. I was cautious though. Maybe that is mild swimming too. I didn’t have a watch anyway. I love not counting in the water, not knowing the time- even though I then can’t tell ten or a hundred minutes. I must have turned back at about twenty five in the end, because when I checked what time I’d taken an (uncharacteristic) selfie, it was just over fifty minutes earlier. Staggering out over the pebbles I wasn’t as exhilarated as after colder, crawlier swims but I felt like I’d claimed a space I could be in the future. A way of being in places, in waters. “All this, just for me?”- I poured steaming tea from my flask, remembered a time when I couldn’t have afforded the petrol or casually wasted £48 of the Great North Swim entry fee or bought a wetsuit, or even a flask. Tried to beam back the thought that the lake was mine anyway. Everyone’s. The next day I would swim in the sea, head up breast stroke again and the day after that, in an outdoor pool, an hour of determined, immersive front crawl which felt like it used an entirely different bit of brain.

I’ve avoided writing about my swimming until now. It’s been something that is refreshingly not about words. But I feel like words might help me work something out now, for a bit at least- and help me share it too. See you in the depths- and on the surface, swim by swim…